First day clap at King Elementary in Des Moines, Iowa
Photo Credit: Des Moines Public Schools

State Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, and the Des Moines Register are beating the “more money for public schools” drum because of large class sizes seen in Des Moines’ public school classrooms.

Celsi tweeted:

The Des Moines Register reports that some Des Moines Public Schools classes have over 40 students.

Having taught I can tell you that is an overwhelming number but is “underfunding education” the problem here?

Celsi claims that the state’s supplemental state aid raise of 2 percent for schools approved last session is not an investment.

What Celsi and most Democrats do not acknowledge is the percentage of the state’s general fund appropriations is for education. Almost 56 percent of the state’s general fund of over $7.6 billion is for education. Just over 43 percent of that is for school supplement state aid – money the state sends to individual school districts.

The overall state general budget did not increase much between FY 2019 and FY 2020 – under $200,000 – which is remarkable, however, the state increased (compared to the estimated FY2019 numbers as of July, 2019) school supplemental state aid by over $93.5 million, roughly 2.9 percent. This was the largest increase of any budget line item in the general fund.

Celsi says this is not an investment. The Des Moines Education Association tells The Des Moines Register that this is underfunding.

Des Moines Public Schools for FY2020 receives $8,061.18 per student from the state according to data from the Iowa Department of Management. This does not include money from the district’s property taxes or any federal money they may receive. It also does not include any additional state money in the forms of grants the district may receive.

The approved budget that Des Moines Public Schools submitted to the state of Iowa for FY2019 states that they predicted over $262.7 million in state foundation aid (school supplemental state aid). They also predicted over $136 million from local property and $54.2 million from federal sources. Their approved budget was north of $753.9 million.

For perspective, that is almost 10 percent of the state of Iowa’s entire general fund budget in FY2019 – one school district, albeit the largest school district in the state. Their certified enrollment last school year was 32,789 students.

Yet we are to believe public education is underfunded and no one will ever say how much money is enough.

The problem is not funding but funding allocation. Des Moines Public Schools have some significant challenges, according to their facts and figures webpage, 76.2 percent of their enrollment was on free or reduced lunches, 22.3 percent are English Language Learners, and 15.1 percent are involved in some special education program.

I suspect that Des Moines Public Schools is very heavy on non-teaching support staff. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a 2014 study found that non-teaching staff grew by 130 percent since 1970 and half of all school staff were not teachers.

Dr. Ben Scafidi, professor and director of the Education Economics Center at Kennesaw State University, found in a 2013 study for EdChoice, that during FY 2009 Iowa had a 13.4 student to non-teaching staff ratio while having a slightly higher student to teacher ratio of 13.6 students for every one teacher. They were one of 21 states at the time that more administrators and non-teaching staff than teachers in the individual state’s public school districts.

In a 2015 follow-up study, Scafidi reported as a result of the Great Recession, schools cut more teaching staff than non-teaching staff:

Interestingly, the American public school system reduced its teacher force by more than it reduced its ranks of non-teachers during the Great Recession. From FY 2009 to FY 2012, the number of public school teachers fell by 3.7 percent, while the number of non-teachers (all other staff ) declined by only 2.2 percent.

When staffing increased between FY 2012 to FY 2015, non-teaching staff was the priority:

From FY 2012 to FY 2015, American public schools experienced a 1.6 percent increase in enrollment. And, public school staffing increased by 1.9 percent during this time period. Who were these increased staff? Teachers increased by only 0.9 percent during this time period—not by enough to maintain smaller class sizes. All other staff—personnel who are not teachers—however, were increased by 3.0 percent, almost double the increase in students.

Scafidi noted that in FY2015, Iowa still had a smaller student to non-teaching staff ration – 13.9 to 1 – than student to teacher ratio – 14.2 to 1.

Is it possible for Des Moines Public Schools and other school districts who struggle with larger class sizes to reduce non-teaching staff so they can hire more teachers?

Absolutely. It will require jettisoning the mindset that public schools should become social services agencies. It may also mean capping how many students can take elective classes, like yearbook, but It can be done.

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